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The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
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The Old Wives' Tale (1908)

by Arnold Bennett

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Five Towns Series (5)

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1,212239,599 (3.88)98
  1. 10
    The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: One's a fat early 20th-century English novel and the other a spare modern American one but both recount the lives of two sisters, one of whom settles into domesticity and one of whom goes further afield to lead an apparently more eventful life. And more strikingly both boooks leave the reader with a great sense of sadness because both Bennett and Yates convey so overwhelming a sense of the transience and smallness of life.… (more)
  2. 00
    Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: A less Victorian novel by Bennett and a re-readable one.
  3. 00
    Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (starbox)
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» See also 98 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Another classic that I thoroughly enjoyed, although not all the way through. I think it made a difference that I am older and could identify with some of the preoccupations of the protaganists (the are widows btw, not spinsters, which is what I was expecting, possibly foolishly) Bennett uncannily captures the emotions and thought processes of people (not just women) - his description of a young woman falling in love/lust is faultless. Much more candid than one is lead to expect from Victorian novels (I haven't read many, not even all of Dickens - is that a terrible confession?) Ultimately though, the greatest interest for me was the description of retail and trade in a small Midlands town - loads of notes made for the research I shall ... one day ... carry out! Zola's novels are often cited as excellent sources in this field, but I think this is just as useful and fascinating. ( )
  Deborahrs | Apr 15, 2017 |
I don't really know what to say about this book. It was easy to read and kept my interest throughout; some passages were humorously sarcastic (I wish there had been more of these!). Despite the title, it is really the story of the lives of 2 sisters from teen years until their deaths. Constance and Sophia would have been contemporaries of Meg and Jo in Little Women so it is interesting to see the similarities & differences due to their different settings. One thing that struck me in the early parts of the book was how teenaged girls haven't changed much in 150 years! ( )
1 vote leslie.98 | Jun 2, 2016 |
Wonderful book! The simple telling of lives lived, actions taken, regrets, and contentment with life. All about the passage of time, this book relates the lives of two sisters over the course of about 70 years. Excellent read.

"What affected her was that he had once been young, and that he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always come to that. Everything came to that." ( )
  Oodles | Feb 16, 2016 |
Modern Library's list of the 20th century's 100 best English-language novels was my introduction to Arnold Bennett's [The Old Wives' Tale]. Published in 1908, it bobbed on the waves of nearly 100 years of literary output to beach itself at #87 on that list. At 729 pages, it isn't short—in fact it was my first Dead-weight Doorstop challenger for 2016—nor is it upbeat. But it was not, for me, a wallow in misery and despair.

The story is that of sisters Constance and Sophia Baines. Their parents own and operate a draper's shop in a small English town. (A draper sells fabric and notions and makes clothing.) By the time the sisters are in their teens, Mr. Baines has suffered a catastrophic stroke and is bedridden, largely helpless. Mrs. Baines is running the shop and directing the work of the several employees. The sisters display different temperments. Constance, as her name suggests, is reserved, obedient, practical, conscientious. Sophia, several years younger, is impulsive, independent, passionate.

Sophia chafes at the prospect of a life behind the shop counters and, through persistance, persuades her mother to allow her remain in school beyond the time girls usually quit. She wants to be a teacher; until, that is, she is smitten by a traveling salesman. Convinced he intends to marry her, she sneaks away and is squired to London, with the next stop to be Paree. He gets her to Paris, but only after marrying her (which of course was never his plan. Because of her impulsive elopement, Sophia cuts herself off from her family, certain they want nothing to do with her. Her husband burns through all their money, then badgers her to solicit funds from her family. When she refuses, he abandons her.

Back in England, Constance remains with her mother, working in the shop. She marries the business manager of the shop and they take over when Mrs. Baines dies. She maintains the same domestic routine of the household her mother established. The business grows. Constance has a son. Her husband dies; she carries on.

The book is structured in four parts. The first is devoted to the sisters' lives with their mother. The second tells of Constance's life, the third of Sophia's life in Paris. In part four, Sophia contacts her sister and returns from Paris to her birthplace in England. Both women are financially well off, yet neither can break out of her now-well-established life routine.

In an introduction, Bennett wrote that a chance encounter in a Paris restaurant inspired the book. A woman he described as "grotesque" came in and attracted his interest.

It was easy to see that she lived alone, and that in the long lapse of years she had developed the kind of peculiarity which induces guffaws among the thoughtless…One ought to be able to make a heartrending novel out of the history of a woman such as she… the mere fact that every stout ageing woman was once a young girl with the unique charm of youth in her form and movements and in her mind. And the fact that the change from the young girl to the stout ageing woman is made up of an infinite number of infinitesimal changes, each unperceived by her, only intensifies the pathos.
  weird_O | Feb 3, 2016 |
At long last I have finished it! Arnold Bennett is one of the authors I have always meant to read; however, I never really made much effort to do so. One reason I suppose that I haven't rushed out to read his work is that it comes with that "naturalist" label,and that is a category that is less appealing to me. I suppose my evaluation of the books is that it is a minutely observed portrait of two sisters of different temperaments coming to womanhood in the mid-19 century. Yet minutely observed is a bit of an understatement; it is,in fact, tedious at times. The last quarter of the book found me skipping largish passages. The characters are well established. While Constance is often referred to as the "very pattern" of a wife and mother, she never slips into a mere stereotype. Sophia, the more beautiful and willful of the sisters, is a marvel of industry and ingenuity. Constance's son Cyril nearly rivals the Georges of The Magnificent Ambersons and Vanity Fair in egocentricity and maternal neglect, and general thoughtlessness, though, on the whole he is more likable, and at least not a dolt and lay about. And Constance isn't brainless enough as to ignore his every act of indifference and fancy him a paragon.

The book is sometimes termed as a tragedy, and I suppose it is in some ways. I won't say much more here about that since I don't want to give anything away. One of the more delightful things about the book is Bennett sympatehtic depiction of admirable woman of spirit, something at which few male writers of the time period were especially adept. I certainly got the sense that he liked these woman and admired them.

( )
1 vote lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arnold Bennettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wain, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Those two girls, Constance and Sopha Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141442115, Paperback)

First published in 1908, "The Old Wives' Tale" affirms the integrity of ordinary lives as it tells the story of the Baines sisters - shy, retiring Constance and defiant, romantic Sophia - over the course of nearly half a century. Bennett traces the sisters' lives from childhood in their father's drapery shop in provincial Bursley, England, during the mid-Victorian era, through their married lives, to the modern industrial age, when they are reunited as old women. The setting moves from the Five Towns of Staffordshire to exotic and cosmopolitan Paris, while the action moves from the subdued domestic routine of the Baines household to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:35 -0400)

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This novel about the divergent lives of two sisters which spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods is a 20th-century classic. Recently included in the list of the greatest 20th-century novels.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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